Call Grows Louder for NCAA to Open Doors for Minority Coaches

Activist Sam Sachs is a former Western Oregon football player.Activist Sam Sachs is a former Western Oregon football player.

A­fter Black coaches Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith led their teams to the 2007 Super Bowl, college athletic directors of the NCAA’s top football division adopted a version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule in 2008, which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for head coach openings.

Also in 2007, Portland State University hired Jerry Glanville as its new football coach because of his NFL experience—without interviewing any other applicants. Activist and alumnus Sam Sachs was so upset that, in 2009, he lobbied through the Oregon Legislature the first and only state law that imposes a form of the Rooney Rule on public universities.

In one way, the 2008 standard of the Division-IA (D-IA) Athletic Directors Association is broader than the NFL’s rule because job interviews are to include “one or more minority candidates” for head football coach jobs. In another way, so, too, is the Oregon law. It applies to head coaching positions in all sports at seven state-supported universities.

The athletic directors and Oregon’s legislators did not adopt authorized penalties, a $500,000 fine in the NFL, for violations. Monitoring of compliance, by the athletic directors association and the state of Oregon, has also been inconsistent.

But both initiatives have contributed modestly to coaching diversity at the college level, though progress has been unsteady and halting.

Conflict in Oregon

In 2007, the year before the athletic directors adopted the policy, there were seven coaches of color in D-IA, also known as the Football Bowl Subdivision. That number climbed to a high of 19 in 2011-12, before dwindling each year to 14 in 2014-15, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida.

“I’ll say in the very first year of implementation, all but one search had at least one minority legitimately involved and, in most cases, more than one. Then we started to see a marked increase in the number of minorities that were actually hired,” says Dutch Baughman, who recently retired as executive director of the DI-A Athletic Directors Association, based in Grapevine, Texas.

Baughman says he found such widespread compliance in the early years that the association stopped tracking whether schools interviewed minority candidates.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES), has complained that coaching candidates of color have been getting interviewed but not hired. He has continued to push for the NCAA to adopt the NFL’s Rooney Rule. ­The NCAA has maintained it lacks the authority to impose the practice on member schools of the voluntary association, unlike the NFL, which is a business with franchises.

In Oregon, its two D-IA schools—the University of Oregon and Oregon State University—still have not had a head football coach of color.

U-Oregon, as it’s called locally, did hire an African-American, Robert Johnson, as its track and cross country coach in 2012, according to Craig Pintens, spokesman for the athletic department. Oregon State has not hired any head coaches of color since the law was enacted and currently has none, according to Steve Fenk, athletic department spokesman. Portland State, which plays in the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision, tapped Nigel Burton to coach its team when Glanville departed in 2009. Burton, who became the first Black football coach in the Big Sky Conference, arrived after the Oregon law was passed but before it took effect in January 2010.

“I went to the athletic director and I said, ‘Are you going to honor the spirit of the law?’” Sachs recalls. “And he said yes. He interviewed several candidates, but a couple of minority candidates, and ended up hiring one of them.”

Both Sachs and state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, the law’s sponsor, pointed to instances of uneven compliance among the seven covered universities: U-Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State, Eastern Oregon, Western Oregon, Southern Oregon and the Oregon Institute of Technology.

“­The best way to put it is I think there’s been some wins, some losses and some ties,” Sachs says.

Greenlick adds: “Some universities have given us a little trouble in terms of always seeking a waiver, which … is possible under the equal employment opportunity office. But mostly I think they’re following it.”

­The Oregon University System had monitored compliance with the law through its equal employment office, but that statewide governing body does not have the same oversight functions it once had. Greenlick has filed legislation for a successor agency, the Higher Education Coordinating Council, to take on the role. Sachs also favors that takeover of responsibility.

Despite his role shepherding the law through the Oregon House, Greenlick describes Sachs as “really the father of the Rooney Rule” in the state because he personally lobbied every state legislator.

Sachs says he placed a cold call on the phone to Greenlick, then his legislative representative, to pitch the idea.

“It made great sense to me from the beginning,” Greenlick says. “Oregon is a pretty White state, and, on the other hand, we have a lot of Black athletes. And it seemed to me very appropriate to give Black coaches a chance.”

Sachs, 47, brought a well-versed background to the issue as a former football player at Western Oregon, a college and pro football fan, and a Portland State graduate with a Black studies degree.

“I’d been an athlete my whole life and I’m Jewish as well. I kind of experienced discrimination and racism,” Sachs explains. “Every year you would see the same thing. ­These coaches would get recycled, and there would be African-American coaches that would be overlooked. I just got tired of it and said someday I’m going to do something about it.”

Enforcing the law

In persuading his legislative colleagues, Greenlick compared the Rooney Rule to the searches for minority professors he conducted as chair of public health and preventive medicine at the Oregon Health & Science University for 10 years.

“I was able to talk about how this really is no big deal,” Greenlick says. “In college athletics, there are minority assistant coaches all over the country. It’s a lot easier than finding a public health professor.”

Sachs initially proposed applying the rule only to searches for head football coaches. But a House committee voted to broaden the coverage to all sports.

­The Oregon House passed the law, 42-4. ­The Senate followed with a 29-0 vote.

In the five years since then, Sachs says he has grown frustrated with the pace of change in diversity in the head coaching ranks at the state’s public universities. He has begun to advocate for penalties, which he says might entail the loss of one or more athletic scholarships.

“I think there has to be accountability, and right now there is none,” Sachs says. “It looks like we have a law that makes us look good and feel good about ourselves, but we’re not fully interested in enforcing anything.”

His legislative ally, Greenlick, disagrees. “I’ve been resisting penalties. I think it just adds a coercive element that I’m not willing to do right now,” he explains.

Right after the 2009 passage of the Oregon law, Sachs encouraged Black legislators from Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma to file similar bills. None passed.

Sachs says he hopes to meet with the Black Caucus of State Legislators later this year and urge its members to renew the push for adopting the Rooney Rule in other states.

“I don’t believe the NCAA is ever going to implement this. I am hopeful that we can be successful in getting other states to do it,” Sachs says.

Sachs acknowledges that’s an ambitious goal, but adds: “Nobody thought I could do it in Oregon.”